Friday, August 26, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: No chance of that!

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) • View trailer for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
1.5 stars. Rating: R, for violence and terror, much of the latter directed at a little girl
By Derrick Bang

To fall back on an indictment that I use with depressing frequency these days, this film boasts a classic example of the so-called idiot plot: The story lurches forward from one improbable event to the next only because each and every character behaves like a complete idiot at all times.
Nobody believes Sally (Bailee Madison) when she insists that evil little pixies
have invaded her huge home. She therefore takes a picture of one — attagirl! —
but then loses her "proof" when one of the critters snatches it away ... at which
point the foolish child turns stupid again, and chases it into a darkened library,
where she can be attacked by dozens of them. You'd think the girl would have
smartened up by this point...

The only saving grace — although this creates an entirely different set of problems — is that our cast of characters is so ludicrously, unnaturally limited, that we need not assume the entire human race has been force-fed dopey pills. It's just these five people.

It's simply impossible to sympathize with characters who are so bone-stupid.

Consider: Your handyman stumbles out of the darkened, obviously sinister basement of your ancient, isolated Rhode Island mansion; he's cut, slashed and bleeding in dozens of places, sharp blades still literally hanging from his body ... with no indication of what or who injured him, or how many attackers were involved.

And you ignore this? Mark it down as an "accident"?

Consider: Our 8-year-old heroine, although admittedly a little girl, is a modern little girl who seems to have all her faculties. She nonetheless displays the intelligence and self-preservational skills of a turnip, forever crawling into and under places that are clearly dangerous. Spooky voices call to her from a nasty, carefully sealed grate in that same malevolent basement ... so what does she do? She opens the grate.

She does not deserve to survive this story; none of these characters does. They don't earn that privilege.

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro — the accomplished horror impresario who wrote and directed Mimic and Pan's Labyrinth, and who produced The Orphanage — has claimed that 1973's made-for-TV flick, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, is the scariest movie he ever saw on the small screen. It has some juice, I'll acknowledge; director John Newland had oodles of experience with TV-size chills in programs such as One Step Beyond, Thriller and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But stars Kim Darby and Jim Hutton weren't really right for the material, and I doubt the film would raise gooseflesh among modern viewers.

But if del Toro retains such fond memories, well and good; that should have made him the perfect choice to script a modern remake.

I can't imagine what went wrong. Everything about this script — credited to del Toro and Matthew Robbins — is contrived, ill-conceived, sloppy or just plain daft.

No exchange of dialogue between "loving couple" Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) sounds authentic; every conversation, whether trivial or agitated, rings false. They also share zero chemistry.

Alex professes to be a loving father to 8-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison), a claim hardly validated by any of his detached behavior. And despite obviously disapproving of his ex-wife's tendency to medicate their daughter on the advice of pill-pushing shrinks, when Sally finally wises up and reacts with appropriate levels of stark terror to what is happening in this story, Alex blandly accepts a new psychiatrist's suggestion to shove more drugs into the poor girl. Is this supposed to be tough love?

And then there's the small stuff, starting with the bewildering presence of an old-style Polaroid OneStep SX-70 camera — a relic about 30 years out of date — in this wholly modern setting, when a digital camera obviously would have been more likely, and maintained the ingredient — a bright flash, as each picture is taken — essential to the plot. (I should mention, by the way, that this particular detail is swiped from Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.)

And on, and on, and on. This isn't a movie one watches; this is a howler one snickers at ... a bowser that deserves to be raked over the coals by the 'bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Scary? Only in del Toro's dreams.

The story, such as it is: Architect and (respectively) interior designer Alex and Kim are working their magic on a dilapidated old mansion in back-country Rhode Island. You know: H.P. Lovecraft meets Steven King-type territory. Alex obsesses over making the cover of Architectural Digest; it's the only thing that motivates him. For some reason, his (apparently) self-centered ex-wife sends young Sally to live with her father for awhile. No back-story there.

Sally arrives as a petulant poop who hates Kim on sight — for stealing Daddy's affections — and generally behaves like an insufferable little brat. Very hard to like, at first. Even harder to like when she decides that the mysterious and obviously nasty voices belong to "little friends" who deserve to be let out of the sealed-off ash pit discovered in the hitherto unknown basement.

Another problem that afflicts movies of this type: We're stuck with characters who apparently have no experience with pop-culture imperatives with which we viewers are immediately familiar. To wit: One does not mess with spooky voices belonging to unseen creatures!


Resident handyman Harris (Jack Thompson, who overplays "gruff" to a ludicrous degree) dislikes this basement. Won't say why. We eventually learn that he apparently struck some sort of "deal" with the malicious little creatures who dwell at the bottom of the ash pit. Can't imagine when Harris did this, or why: Answers came there none. Harris has "sacrificial lamb" inscribed on his forehead anyway, so there's little reason to pay attention to him.

Turns out that these critters are evil fairies, goblins or something similar, which like to feed on teeth. Particularly the teeth of a child. Which is a bit odd, since a plate filled with teeth — obtained during a yucky prologue that'll rattle anybody who fled, screaming, from the dental scene in Marathon Man — apparently remains undisturbed for decades. But hey ... details, right?

As with vampires, these vicious little pixies are afraid of bright lights. Which sounds great, except that our protagonists, even after such behavior becomes screamingly daft, persist in hanging around after sunset, putting themselves in fresh peril. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

And despite the fact that numerous workmen should be on site at all times — this is, after all, a massive remodel — there's never anybody else around when poor Sally is attacked anew. Except the housekeeper, Mrs. Underhill (Julia Blake), who at least has the presence of mind to appear frightened when the situation calls for it. Not that such fears encourage her to, say, quit and depart for safer territories. No, Mrs. Underhill continues to hang about, attempting to solve all problems with another piece of fresh apple pie.

I swear, I am not making this stuff up.

Oh, and let's not forget the garden pond filled with koi. Site of a heart-to-heart between Sally and Kim, where the little girl finally begins to trust this new adult in her life. We're therefore led to believe that the pond, and its koi, will prove significant down the road. Nope. Useless detail, quickly abandoned.

As for other matters ... well, let's consider the acting. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.

Stiff as boards.

Pearce is a bland, rudderless stick. Holmes, never a strong actress, projects minimal amounts of compassion and pluck, as required, but we've no idea why Kim would have put up with Alex for so long. Young Madison is cute, and — to give her credit — Sally eventually softens enough to allow some credible vulnerability to shine through; we do gradually fear for her safety, and admire her courage.

But that comes awfully late, by which time we've spent more than an hour with only three very dull people — and two underdeveloped side characters — and nobody else. The result isn't just claustrophobic; it's stifling ... as in, stifling countless yawns.

The bottom line is that comic book artist-turned-first-time director Troy Nixey hasn't the faintest idea how to handle his cast, his script or any other aspect of his movie.

Actually, that's not entirely true; he's pretty good at showcasing production designer Roger Ford's disconcerting sets. Otherwise, Nixey has absolutely no business standing behind a camera, and I hope he kept the chair warm in front of his artist's table.

In fairness, the nasty pixies also are well realized: nifty special effects by all concerned.

Indeed, I wanted the pixies to win. They're far more interesting than the human beings in this laughable misfire.

The final indignity, coming atop so much absurdity, arrives with the very last scene: an apparent "surprise" that violates everything we've just endured. Much the way the opening of Alien 3 was such a betrayal, with its news that Newt had died off-camera ... after Sigourney Weaver's Ripley spent the whole damn previous film fighting, ultimately successfully, to save that little girl.

Uh-uh. That sort of thing violates the unspoken agreements between filmmaker and viewer. Makes us cranky.

This new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark won't do anybody's career any good; in fact, it's guaranteed to be late summer's token turkey. On behalf of Pearce, Holmes and Madison, that's a shame.

But if it prevents Nixey from being hired again, at least the cloud will have a silver lining.

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